Our national conversation about sexual assault is just beginning. Since the Harvey Weinstein sexual harassment allegations broke in early October, women’s stories have kept coming from Washington, Hollywood, Olympic training centers, media companies, and churches. Credible allegations have been leveled against Republican and Democratic politicians as well as reporters, producers, and directors.
In the midst of the constant reporting about the allegations, the #MeToo hashtag has sparked a broader conversation about sexual assault and harassment, and its pervasiveness in our society. More recently, the #ChurchToo hashtag brought the conversation closer to home for many Christians, as women and men shared stories of harassment, abuse, and the deeply harmful responses of their churches and church leaders.
I’d been reading the #MeToo stories just as one of my Educational Ministries classes began. Stories posted by celebrities, gymnasts, elementary school teachers, politicians, my friends, my neighbors, and my family. Stories of women and men who’d been assaulted, harassed, and abused. I’d also read the giddy criticisms of many Christians, eager for their condemnation of the sexualized Hollywood culture to be confirmed. And then the class began, this one focusing on men’s ministry.
We discussed the unique challenges and particulars of ministering to men. But the class also inadvertently exemplified many of the unspoken beliefs and underlying attitudes about gender that hinder the Church’s ability to authoritatively and prophetically speak into our culture of sexual abuse. These attitudes are taught, again and again, implicitly and explicitly, in our churches, ministries, and seminaries.We forget that the Church’s role is not to baptize toxic masculinity, but rather, to redeem true masculinity.
Too often our conversations about gender rely on tired stereotypes used to get an easy laugh or to simplify an idea. Instead of robust and nuanced analysis of gender differences, we settle for one-dimensional traits and artificial divisions. Our soteriology or ecclesiology might be complex and specific, but our theology of gender is often lazy and limiting.
Our class was repeatedly reminded that men don’t care about “girly” things like centerpieces or décor for a retreat. We watched an America’s Funniest Home Videos montage of men struggling (and often failing) to change their children’s diapers, because men are supposedly inept when it comes to childcare and parenting.
We heard jokes about men bringing ice and liters of soda to their meetings, but no cups, because men can’t be expected to know about planning events or meals. When discussing possible events for a men’s ministry, we were told that the only topics that could possibly interest men were sports, woodworking, cars, and guns. It was repeatedly communicated that men were generally incompetent concerning emotions, relationships, or spiritual matters.
Each of these stereotypes deserves criticism. While flower arrangements might not interest everyone, the appreciation of beauty and the desire to create it is something we should value and cultivate in all people, not just women. Similarly, it’s important to challenge the idea that men have no role in the raising of their children (or the other children in their community and church). But in this particular cultural moment, when sexual assault is in the spotlight, one critique is more pressing than the others.
In many churches, seminaries, and men’s ministries, it’s assumed that men are largely incapable of navigating relationships (especially with women) or talking about their emotions. Many of the resources available for men’s ministries focus on physical strength and confidence, promoting a vision for masculinity that doesn’t prioritize emotional depth. In his “tips when communicating with men,” pastor and author Ron Edmondson argues that men have a more limited range of emotions and simply “don’t feel as deeply” as women.
Many men’s ministries are defined by their “tough guy” vibe, using war and combat imagery that doesn’t lend itself to emotional honesty. This is a broader cultural attitude, but instead of challenging that attitude, Christians cater to it. We coddle harmful assumptions about emotions and relationships instead of calling everyone in our churches and ministries to truer, better, healthier understandings of both. We forget that the Church’s role is not to baptize toxic masculinity, but rather, to redeem true masculinity.
There are real issues surrounding sexuality and gender that the Church needs to speak into. But when our understanding is limited by ’50s sitcom stereotypes, we end up fighting battles on all the wrong fronts. We lose the central message amidst all the scuffles over purely cultural issues.
It’s not just this seminary class, either. Many men’s ministries operate on fundamental assumptions that men are not only unable to understand emotions or relationships, but that they aren’t interested in theology or spiritual matters, either. We worry about the “feminization” of the Church and the decline in male church attendance and decide that we need a better marketing strategy to attract men. As a result, we treat men like overgrown children who need to be tricked with steaks and car shows to get them interested in church activities.
However, many of these same churches and ministries also believe that men should exclusively teach or lead in their churches. We treat men as irresponsible while operating as if they’re the only competent leaders. This isn’t just an awkward tension; it has real and harmful effects on our ministries.
When we simultaneously treat men as both immature or undisciplined and exclusively capable of leadership, we prime our churches and ministries for excusing or justifying sexual abuse. We excuse bad behavior by placing the burden of “controlling” or “civilizing” men on women even as we grant power exclusively to these supposedly uncontrollable men.
Harboring these attitudes about men allows us to laugh off sexual harassment with a swat on the arm and a joke about how “forward” or “blunt” the man is. Since we don’t expect men to navigate relationships well, we place blame on a “seductive” woman when she speaks up about unwanted advances. And when abuse is reported, many churches have no women in positions of leadership who can uniquely speak into the problems and offer more accountability.
While this dynamic is certainly not unique to churches, this pervasive set of attitudes is often magnified in the Church, not condemned. Before there’s even the potential for abuse or assault, ministries can unwittingly cultivate a culture that allows for it. Instead, we need to offer ministries that value men with different interests, teach a fatherhood that is involved and attentive, and promote a vision for masculinity that values healthy emotions and relationships.
Regardless of whether churches are complementarian or egalitarian, the current cultural conversations about the abuse and degradation of women should prompt us all to evaluate the ways we have diminished the value and dignity of women, even in ways we could label inconsequential. It’s also an important moment to find ways to elevate the voices of women and include their perspectives in leadership and accountability.
It’s always easier to pinpoint sin’s roots in others. We can easily discern how commercialized sexualization has infected many industries, and we can criticize the sexual revolution for unmooring sexuality from any biblical vision for human flourishing. It’s infinitely more difficult, however, to see the ways that our own subcultural attitudes or bad theology have uniquely primed our churches and church leaders for excusing or concealing sexual abuse.
This is not just an important conversation; it’s an awakening to a crisis. For many of us, this news is anything but new. For others, it’s a jarring realization. And in a world searching for solutions to complicated problems, churches can offer refuge for victims and require true repentance and restoration for abusers.
We worship a God who has given us every reason to value human beings, fight injustices, and protect the vulnerable. Scripture offers us beautiful examples of masculinity and femininity that push back against harmful stereotypes: we read about men writing poems and songs and women running businesses and bankrolling Jesus’ disciples. We have every theological reason to celebrate the goodness of relationships and the dignity of work for both genders.
These can be profoundly important resources for addressing sexual abuse. With them, the Church can play an important role in this cultural moment. But we cannot feed the problem and then expect to turn around and speak confidently into it.
We do severe harm to our witness when we’re all too willing to rebuke the abuse and degradation in Hollywood, a cultural sphere that has traditionally earned Christians’ scorn, but are completely unwilling to recognize the abuse — and its deep causes — in ourselves. Our broken world is dying for redemption, and we serve a God with the only perfect vision for human healing and flourishing. But without careful and prayerful examination of the way that our own churches, subculture, and hearts have contributed to the crisis, we will be unable to play a crucial role in addressing it.